Xenophobia in South Africa: dispelling the myths, explaining the reality

South Africa should show real leadership on the continent by replacing xenophobic falsehoods with evidence-based narratives and solutions.

Recent attacks on foreign-owned shops reveal that the negative attitudes of many South Africans toward foreign nationals remain mostly unchanged since the 2008 attacks and murders. Far too many locals, from the political elite to the unemployed surviving in informal settlements, believe that foreign nationals ‘steal’ jobs from South Africans because they dominate the informal sector and allegedly have an unfair advantage over locals in this segment of the economy.

This belief is simply not true. It is a myth used partly to explain why the unemployment rate stands at around 25%. Some of our politicians are quick to propagate this misconception; possibly because they believe it themselves, or perhaps to distract an increasingly restless population from their failure to provide jobs that are routinely promised in State of the Nation speeches.

In August last year, the Migrating for Work Research Consortium (MiWORC) published research based on Statistics South Africa data. Their findings showed that 80% of the working population aged between 15 and 64 were ‘non-migrants’ (people born in South Africa), 16% were ‘internal migrants’ from other parts of the country and just 4% could be defined as ‘international migrants’, that is, people who come here from other countries.

It is a myth used to partly explain why the unemployment rate stands at around 25%

Indeed, the MiWORC study did find that unemployment rates among international migrants were much lower at 14.68 % – compared to 26.16 % among non-migrants. What explains this is that international migrants are more likely to take up unstable jobs that are scant on benefits and do not have contracts: jobs that locals are often unwilling to take.

Another myth that is pervasive when there are attacks on foreign-national shops is that international migrants dominate the informal sector, for instance small, informal shops in townships. Last month Nomvula Mokonyane, Minister of Water Affairs and Sanitation, posted a Facebook comment stating that ‘almost every second outlet [spaza] or even former general dealer shops are run by people of Somali or Pakistan origin…’ She added that, ‘Our townships cannot be a site of subtle takeover and build up for other situations we have seen in other countries. I am ready to state my view formally in defence of our communities.’

However, research published by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) suggests that foreigners do not dominate the informal sector – at least not in Gauteng, the hub of the country’s economy. According to the data, 18% (fewer than two in 10 people) of informal sector business owners in the province come from another country, 28% moved to the province from elsewhere in South Africa and 54% were born in Gauteng. Contrary to claims that foreigners dominate this sector, the data shows that this is not the case in Gauteng. The research also shows that international migrants in fact contribute to the economy by renting shops from South Africans, providing employment to locals and paying value added tax.

Fair, creative and innovative mechanisms for managing xenophobia are urgently needed

Clearly ignorant of these facts, Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu was quoted in various news outlets as saying that, ‘Foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost. They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners.’ That senior politicians hold such reactionary attitudes without anyone in the ruling party taking issue with these ‘right wing’ sentiments, suggests decay in what was once a progressive organisation dedicated to improving the lives of all Africans.

It is a reality that immigration is a sensitive subject globally. The recent backlash against immigrant communities in European Union countries by conservative political parties clearly demonstrates this. Immigration has also become a topical matter in the United States (US) and it will most likely be a major issue in the country’s next presidential elections in 2016.Attitudes in South Africa towards foreign nationals therefore seem to mirror conservative concerns in other parts of the world.

Countries that have ‘progressive’ migration policies reap significant economic benefits

South Africa can show real leadership on the continent by creating spaces to debate immigration issues and engage with foreign nationals about their lives, hopes and aspirations. In this way, platforms could be created for all parties to promote social cohesion and encourage a cross-pollination of ideas and skills to the benefit of all. Indeed, migration is a fundamental characteristic of all humanity. And, as the apartheid state failed to recognise, trying to ferment distrust and hate between people of different ethnic or cultural characteristics is bound to end in unnecessary pain and grief.

Fair, creative and innovative mechanisms for managing this phenomenon are now urgently needed. History shows that countries that have ‘progressive’ migration policies often reap significant economic benefits. The US is a case in point. There is also no denying that since 1994 foreign nationals have contributed positively to the socio-economic life of South Africa.

Open and receptive policies towards foreign nationals do not mean giving free rein to criminal and other unsavoury elements. Similarly, myths about foreigners in relation to entrepreneurship, jobs and criminality should be dispelled and replaced with narratives based on evidence.

This is critical for social cohesion that will bring South Africans and their foreign brothers and sisters together. It is not an easy task, but neither is it an insurmountable one. Strong leadership is needed to confront the challenges and assiduously work towards crafting innovative solutions. In the end, South Africa will benefit economically and will indeed be the rainbow nation that the country’s democratic founding fathers had envisaged.

Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo, Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria


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